Scotland v Wales preview: ‘previous performance is no guide to future returns’

Wales will recognise Duhan van der Merwe as a big threat but also as a potential weak link. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Wales will recognise Duhan van der Merwe as a big threat but also as a potential weak link. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THE year was 2004 and Ireland were hosting Scotland in the Six Nations. I was covering the game and had time to kill ahead of kickoff in Dublin. I was in the company of the late Brian Meek, a rival writer at The Herald. We wandered the streets and idly checked the prices on the afternoon’s adventure at a local bookies.

I can’t be exact but Scotland were something like 4-1. The same Scotland that had won 12 of the previous 14 matches against the men in green, it is worth pointing out, how could they possibly lose this one?

Brian and I both agreed, the odds were wrong, we filled our boots, £10 at least must have changed hands, and were already spending our winnings when reality jumped up and bit us on the backside. Remember the phrase that equity salesmen are obliged to repeat, ‘previous performance is no guide to future returns’ … and so it proved with Scotland.


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The previous performance was irrelevant. The rugby, present and future both belonged almost exclusively to Ireland who went on to win that afternoon, the first of seven successive victories over the Scots whom they have dominated to an embarrassing extent ever since. Ireland scored five tries that afternoon, Scotland just the one.

My mistake was failing to notice that the balance of power within the game had shifted although the writing was on the wall if I only had the gumption to look up. Ireland had already beaten world champions England that season, Scotland had finished second to Italy. Ireland were on the up and they continued that trajectory all the way to becoming the number one side in the world. Scotland passed them right around this time, maybe a little earlier, headed in the opposite direction, where they have sat and stewed pretty much ever since.

Until now?

Wales have won 14 of the last 16 games between the two nations so we can forgive Warren Gatland if the wily Kiwi coach believes his side has a fighting chance this afternoon. They do. Although we know now that past performance is not necessarily a good guide to Saturday’s result.

Wales’ front five is nothing special but if they can get something close to parity in the bump and grind department the breakaway trio are all scrappers. Leicester’s Tommy Reffell is third in the Premiership for turnovers, way ahead of either of the Curry twins, Jac Morgan is small for an eight at 5’ 10” but extremely dynamic, while the 6’ 6” Christ Tshiunza offers a line-out and ball-carrying option.

The big blindside has learned the ropes at Exeter’s school of hard knocks where the versatile player regularly appears with a seven on his back and it looks like he could join the greats of the game, although at just 21, it may not happen on Saturday afternoon.

Born in Kinshasa, Tshiunza attended Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, which boasts Sam Warburton, Gareth Bale and Geraint Thomas amongst its alumni, so he is in good company.

Wyn Jones’ return to the front-row can only strengthen Wales and if their less than fearsome front-five can get sufficient ball they have the backs to score tries. Liam Williams, Josh Adams and George North are all world class and Dan Biggar remains one of the best kicking fly-halfs in the game.

He will likely tease the hero of Twickenham, putting the ball in behind Duhan van der Merwe, so giving the Welsh defensive line the chance to close him down before the big fella works up a head of steam, something England failed to do. For all his excellence against England, Wales will target the South African giant because he is prone to the occasional error.

Just past the hour mark at Twickenham, van der Merwe decided to run back a kick when he should probably have hacked the ball downfield. It was exactly what England wanted and, had their defence been properly aligned, it would have resulted in a huge territorial gain for the home side.

Instead it almost resulted in a try at the opposite end of the field for Kyle Steyn who was unable to gather Stuart Hogg’s wayward pass, fired six inches behind his head, as the Scots ran the ball out of defence when van der Merwe’s breakdown caused the English players to honeypot around the ball, over-eager for a turnover.

The point is that while Scotland should have scored, van der Merwe still takes the contact around his own 22, a risky option. Wales will look to tempt him to run the ball in the wrong areas of the field and do a better job of stopping the big man.

 

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Scotland are usually comfortable playing unstructured rugby but they go into this game as favourites and with the better forward pack, at least on paper, so should the play really open up it will probably suit the visitors more than the hosts who may have to temper their ambition just a little.

This is the fine line that Finn Russell treads every time the fly-half takes to the field and he got the balance almost exactly right against England. Just for the record, Scotland kicked the ball further than any other team on the opening weekend, almost exactly twice as far as they carried it, which says something about their relative abilities when it comes to kicking and carrying.

It is the timing of their attacks that earned Scotland the win last Saturday so exactly where and when Russell decides to launch will be key to getting through Saturday’s game without the use of a defibrillator.

We have come full circle from 2007 when Frank Hadden’s Scotland team bossed all the possession/territory stats but the backs had all the cutting edge of a balloon. On the opening weekend of the 2023 Championship, Scotland had the best points return for each entry into the opposition 22 … 4.1 points per visit, compared to about half that number for England.

Scotland made the same number of line breaks at Twickenham as Wales did against Ireland; the difference is that the Scots scored four tries from them, Wales just the one. The Scottish back-line scores tries freely and we haven’t even seen the best of Hogg yet. Steyn was a revelation on the wing, at least to me, and Sione Tuipulotu has made himself indispensable at inside-centre.

But a word of warning: Scotland only created two of the four tries they scored against England. Van der Merwe’s solo effort was just that, down to individual brilliance, and Ben White’s score, while very well taken, came courtesy of a defensive howler by Ben Curry. Going forward, Scotland cannot bank on scoring four tries from the 29 percent territory and 43 percent of possession they managed against England. It was an aberration and the forwards will need to boss the Welsh pack in the set-scrum and line-out drives to ensure a comfortable win on Saturday.

It is too early to say that we have reached some pivotal point in the history of rugby between Scotland and Wales but, after losing any number of games Scotland should have won, you have to believe some sort of corner has been turned. The world rankings certainly hint as much with Scotland in fifth, Wales a lowly ninth. (With the top five ranked nations in the top half of the World Cup draw it is perhaps time to tweak the timing of the pools.)

Warren Gatland will be attempting to turn back the clock and revisit his glory days while the Scots look to have an advantage across the field if they can only back up last Saturday’s slick execution in attack with the same again. Oh, and they need to keep 15 men on the field for the full 80 minutes please.

Should Scotland score and get their nose in front early it should be a comfortable enough win for Gregor Townsend’s improving team. The longer it stays close the more Wales will fancy their chances.

I predict a home win but it won’t all be plane sailing.


Scotland v Wales: one change to home side as Gatland revamps pack

About Iain Morrison 146 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent overall analysis, Iain.

    Did Scotland manage 43% of possession vs England last Saturday? It seemed more like a 30% / 70% split.

  2. I think Ian’s analysis is very astute. As usual we may be getting carried away by the euphoria of one good performance against a surprisingly inept England. I’m worrying about the Welsh game but I really hope I’m wrong! Scotland by 2points?

  3. Form backed by confidence is everything and its with Scotland. Expect an arm wrestle, but a Scotland win.

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